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Conference of European Churches
Church and Society Commission
Strasbourg Office

Note on Science in Society Forum organised by the European Commission in Brussels, 9-11 March 2005


About a thousand people participated in this event aiming at «pooling together accumulated experience in the EU members states and at EU level » in the field of activities linked to the EC Science and Society Action Plan launched in 2001, in order, as announced in the invitation, « to forge a new partnership between science and society. It set out a strategy that would help the public at large – and particularly young people – to become more aware and more involved in science and its consequences, trigger open debate on ethical questions challenge the remaining stereotypes that still keep women out of sustainable scientific careers, and promote good practices in the use of scientific advice and risk governance ».
Participants were European and national policy-makers (including a speaker from the Bioethics Department of the Council of Europe), parliamentarians, opinion leaders, entrepreneurs, researchers, representatives of civil society groups and science mediators. Churches were specifically represented through, in particular, the Executive Secretary of the Church and Society Commission of CEC (Strasbourg) and a member of its Working Group on Bioethics and Biotechnology (Donald Bruce from the Church of Scotland), representatives of COMECE, EKD and the Holy See.

As on earlier occasions, the tension between, on the one hand, those who are mainly concerned by the implementation of economic dimension of the « Lisbon Strategy » adopted in 2001 and «aimed at a rapid establishment of a European research and innovation area with a view to sustainable economic growth, more employment and social cohesion with the ultimate goal of enabling the Union, by 2010, to become the world’s most competitive and dynamic knowledge economy » (See 6th Framework Programme for Research), and, on the other hand, those (also) concerned by issues linked to ethics and values.

No need to say that the pressure seems very strong to promote the economic dimension, given the overall current weakness of economic growth in the EU. In this context, it is remarkable that such a meeting was organised, allowing more space to raise ethical and value issues than on some previous occasions. At least, the tone and the style of several speeches and testimonies presented the issues of science and society in a more realistic way, where science is no longer viewed as the only rational view on things and communication exclusively considered as a means to teach and reach public acceptance of new developments. In opening the Forum, Commissioner Jan Figel’ (Culture and Education) said for example that « communication will not suppress debate and controversy because of the diversity of views about values » and « sensitive issues should be anticipated by engaging with concerned groups outside the scientific world ».

There was a particularly interesting presentation about « Innovation through interaction between producers and users ». Through testimonies and analysis it showed how it is possible to move from a culture of “acceptability” to a culture of participation. The underlying idea is that there is not only one source of rationality (i.e. science) besides all the rest which only pertains to “emotions”. Non experts must be invited to participate to the elaboration of the scientific and technological issues (bringing together their different world views) by methods ranging from information to empowerment for action. One example given was the raising of funds by patients’ associations, which then become co-producers of knowledge. The added value of participation is manifold : improvement of democratic decision-making and of production processes ; strengthening of the feeling of citizenship and ownership. At the end of the day, all this proves rather a win rather than a loss of time. The bad example of what happened with GMO and food was mentioned. Practically, there needs to be a combination of different methods : small discussion groups, consensus conferences, questionnaires, referenda, hearings, debates with experts etc. Testimonies show that one then discovers the competence of “lay people” in science to discuss technological issues ! Some basis rules must be respected :
- stakeholders must be involved from the beginning of a process and must take part in the definition of the rules of the discussion
- there must be an independent assessment
- information, dialogue and feed-back must be combined, as well as prospective thinking, debates and mediation towards a participatory or inclusive governance
- interaction between all these participatory processes and the public at large e.g. through exhibitions.
The speaker, Mr. Pierre-Benoît JOLY (INRA – France) concluded saying that what was at stake was the “scientific citizenship” through the development of a “network society”. To this end he called for the creation of an “European Academy for Scientific Citizenship”.

I was particularly involved in one of the four parallel sessions called “Diversity, Inclusiveness, Equality”. In the discussions, I stressed the need for developing the model of participatory processes and raised a question about which kind of contribution the European Commission was willing to make to this end. Although I did not receive a concrete answer, my intervention was well supported and launched a lively discussion, which was reflected in the conclusion of the session.

Together with Donald Bruce (DB), I went to a additional session on involvement of NGOs. The conclusion was that NGOs reject the “window dressing” role model and want to be real partners. This implies consequences in terms of their being financially supported in a proper way. DB asked why churches were missing from the panel of contributors, while being probably the largest group representing people in Europe. He also deplored the purely materialistic view underlying the EU Framework Programme on Research.

The other sessions were on :
- Science, Society and the Lisbon Strategy
- Science, Technology and Democracy
- Towards a Culture of Science Communication.

Finally, conclusions drawn from all the sessions were presented. I just pick out here among those which sound more unexpected than others :

* Critical citizenship as a positive role in building democratic society
- opposition to technoscientific developments is not founded in ignorance or anti-scientific orientations
- acknowledge that multiple forms of public testing of expertise are essential to the making of robust science (central role of critical citizens in the transfer of science from the lab to society)
- trust in science and consensus should not be idealised as the goal to be reached by any means

* Central function of epistemic citizenship in a knowledge society
- knowledge society requires diversification of the types of knowledge recognised as relevant (e.g. specialised NGOs)
- the “classical” fact-value divide in public science issues is misleading as expert knowledge also embodies values ; debates about science in society are centrally about different visions and imaginations of the world

* Diversifying the phases as well as the social spaces in which the public contributes to the shaping of technoscientific developments
- innovation and medicalisation should become important sites of democratic “experimental” practice (more up-stream questioning)
- public concerns are as much about purposes driving R&D as about impact, therefore private ownership of R&D is a public issue
- research in Europe needs greater civil society role in agenda setting

* Critique of the classical stakeholder model of democracy
- models based on only self-interested actors are perceived as inadequate by the public
- need to identify and test models of “the public” that are at work in different discourses and settings (questioning the notion without expecting a dogmatic answer)

* Towards a culture of science communication
- scientists have a duty to “engage” with the public ; need actively to support young scientists in their desire to take science to the public. The vanguard should not be penalised !
- need to emphasise the pleasure, prospect and excitement of science
- do not blame the press, it is not their responsibility to popularise or lobby for science ; however, television has the widest reach, is the preferred channel of communication and can have spectacular results

* But there are ethical issues – raising unrealistic expectations among vulnerable groups

* Science education is a key issue. Expectation that the EC should play a pivotal role supporting best practice and innovation

*Science and technology creates possible future, an engaged public will help to shape socially sustainable futures

* The results of a world-wide questionnaire on attitudes of pupils towards science showed :
- science is good, important, needed, it will find cures, provide opportunities. But trust in scientists is weak, they will not solve environmental problems
- will not become scientists, or work in a technological job
- boys and especially girls are turned off science, in particular in Japan.

To find more about this Forum and to react on it and especially on the reports from the four sessions see the Website : http://europa.eu.int/comm/research/society2005.html

This site gives also important documents on ethics/ethical legislation and conventions.


Richard Fischer
Executive Secretary
Church and Society Commission
Conference of European Churches